When we – as parents – think about getting a cell phone for our son or daughter, it’s no longer a question of just getting them a phone – we are getting them a handheld computer/camera capable of just about anything. It’s a major decision that comes with major responsibilities for kids and parents.
How do cell phones affect behavior?
- Smart phones are a source of constant connection. This is both good and bad. When our kids have smart phones, we can almost always be sure where they are. Many parents make good use of GPS-tracking apps, but it’s best to use this constant connection sparingly. Kids deserve some privacy, and as they get older (most teens), they will function best if they are allowed to feel they have some time away from parents – at least every once in a while. So, as parents, it’s okay for us to stay connected with our children through a cell phone, but take caution not to get carried away. Random phone checks are okay; constantly following our (mature, reliable) 17-year-old on GPS may be overkill.
The other “downside” of constant connection is that smart phones potentially connect our children to any and everyone, including strangers with bad intentions. Though most kids may know to be careful with who they interact with online, they aren’t always successful. Furthermore, kids can underestimate risk in all kinds of situations, and so they may not fully recognize a dangerous encounter.
- Smart phones impair attention span and prolonged focus. Several studies have now documented a connection between having a smartphone and reduced attention span. In recent studies, just having a cell phone out on the table, rather than in the pocket, impairs focus on cognitive performance tasks. Kids (and adults too) do worse on tasks when a phone is around.
- Kids (and adults) can experience psychological withdrawal from smart phones. A number of studies have reported withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, an irresistible urge to “check” the phone, and a few other related symptoms. In most people, these symptoms are mild and won’t cause problems. However, in some, smart phone withdrawal can become a real problem.
- Smart phones impair sleep. Most kids sleep far less than the recommended amount. Sleep impairment from phones occurs for two reasons: 1) blue light from screens fools our brains into thinking it’s still daytime when it’s not, and 2) kids often feel that they may “miss something important” if they aren’t available at night for “chatting” with friends on smart phones.
What can we do to reduce problematic cell phone use?
Start talking to your child around 4th or 5th grade about responsible use of technology. Keep the discussion going, too, adding more information as your child develops. Here are a few key points you may want to cover:
- Outline for kids that most fun things have a clear start and clear end. In other words, kids need to learn that it’s not healthy to do anything all day, every day, no matter how fun it is. Coach children in how to limit cell phone use to certain times of the day, with a clear start and end. Teach kids that outside of that time frame, they may use the phone for calls as needed, but shouldn’t be expected to be “on” 24/7.
- Consider turning the Wifi off your child’s phone at least 1 hour before bedtime. Most modern wireless internet routers now have parent controls that allow you to selectively turn off your children’s devices at programmed times of day. This prevents internet access after hours. Also, consider having kids leave phones outside of their room at night.
- Offer children replacement activities. It’s not fair to take away something fun without replacing it with something else. After all, we’re all entitled to have fun (even adults). So, help your child find other activities to fill their day when phone time is over, like reading, sports, gardening, woodwork, autoshop, cooking, and so on.
- Talk to kids gently about what they’re doing on their phones. Most kids won’t tell you everything, especially as they get older. Open up lines of discussion: “See anything interesting on Instagram today?” and let them tell you in their own time. You can also talk to them about what you see on your own phone, modeling how you might handle difficult situations. As needed, you can even make up scenarios to model: “I got a friend invite today from Ellen DeGeneres! What do you think I should do?” Your kid may give the right answer (check to see if it’s real, etc.) or they may need some help: “They asked me for my name and address, should I give it?” Keep going as needed to teach about safety. By using yourself in the scenario and by making it interactive, your kids won’t feel like it’s a lecture, and they’re more likely to actually hear what you have to say.
- Practice what you preach. If you’re going to limit your child’s smart phone use, limit your own as well – holding yourself to the same standard as you hold them. If kids see you on your phone all the time, they will tend to do the same. As hard as it is in today’s busy world to “disconnect,” your kids will appreciate having more time with you.
- Consider joining the Wait Until 8th initiative, where you (and your neighbors) pledge not to get your children a smart phone until 8th
Steadman, J. L. (January 20, 2020). Call me, maybe? What to consider before buying your child a cellphone. https://infoaboutkids.org/blogcall-me-maybe-what-to-consider-before-buying-your-child-a-cellphone